Today, November 11, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of General George S. Patton.
I know what you're thinking. Patton? Old "Blood and Guts?" That weird guy who loved battle, swore like a pirate, and slapped some poor frightened soldier?
Yeah, that's the one. Not really a likeable fellow at first glance, is he? How do you take someone like that and write about him--for children? I know we're supposed to be illuminating our subjects warts and all, but really!
I had already written a few biographies when I was asked to write about Patton. I'd done early reader books on Amelia Earhart, Paul Revere, Helen Keller. These were easy, obvious titles for kids. I was able to convey who these people were and what they accomplished without much difficulty. Sure, there were warts but not many. And then came Patton.
With every biography I try to get inside my subject, to see with their eyes and feel what they feel. It's the only way to write honestly about their motivation. I thought I'd done that with Patton. I couldn't pull any punches. I had to write about the slapping incident, but I laid out why he'd done it, how he saw the whole thing. I wanted to make him understandable. Then I read my draft to my writers' critique group. They congratulated me on a job well done. "But I still don't like him," one fellow writer said, shaking her head.
That bothered me. But was it important? Was it my job to make him likeable? Should I even try? Still, I couldn't help feeling that I'd failed my subject somehow. I was convinced that if I'd succeeded in truly making him understandable, Joan never would have said what she had. So I went back to my draft.
Instead of seeing with Patton's eyes, I looked at the general through the eyes of his men. They didn't really like him either. But they saw him for what he was: a great general who'd do whatever it took to make them great soldiers. They knew him as no one else did and they had nothing but respect for him. At his death, one wrote: "Last night one of the greatest men that ever lived died....The men that served under him know him as a soldier's leader. I am proud to say that I have served under him." That was like meeting George S. Patton for the first time. That's when I really got what his greatest achievement was.
I dedicated my book "For those who were lucky enough to say 'I fought with Patton.'" Today is not only Patton's birthday it is also Veteran's Day. To all our military men and woman I dedicate this week's blog post.